Fading tradition of female facial tattoos in Middle East and North Africa

CNN  — 

As a young girl, Yumna Al-Arashi would look with fascination upon the dots, lines and symbols that graced her Yemeni great-grandmother’s face.

Rich with meaning and history, the markings represented a style of facial tattoo once found across rural communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet as Al-Arashi grew older and learned more about the practice, she discovered it was a tradition few young women seemed intent on continuing.

Intrigued, the London-based photographer of Egyptian-Yemeni descent resolved to document what remained of the practice and explore why its popularity had waned.

Yumna told Al-Arashi that her tattoos represent her love and connection to the earth.

Al-Arashi spent the latter part of 2017 making her way across the Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian hinterlands.

She collected portraits of 100 women over the age of 70 on her journey, many of whom were farmers or fisherwomen.

“One woman told me about the star and moon [tattoos] on her face and how important those things were for her survival,” Al-Arashi tells CNN. “Without understanding the moon or the stars and the position they were in, she wouldn’t know how to farm.”

"I have the stars and the moon on my cheeks," Brika told Al-Arashi in Siliana, Tunisia. "They're the most beautiful things my eyes have seen. I don't know how to read or write and I don't have any devices like you, but I know my land and my earth, the stars and moon help me navigate it. That's why I'm here."

‘Power of the woman’

Nearly all of the women she encountered loved their tattoos and considered them to be markers of beauty, in much the same way younger generations of women enjoy makeup.

While some tattoos appeared to be astrological motifs, others served as symbols of protection from superstitions.

“It was the responsibility of the women to have these symbols to protect their entire families from these otherworldly spirits,” says Al-Arashi. “It really made it quite clear the power of the woman.”

This woman in Algeria told Al-Arashi she was ashamed of her tattoos, because her children disapproved.

Al-Arashi hypothesizes that the disappearance of facial tattoos – which she says were generally applied with ink and a needle or sharp palm leaves – is linked to the waning of a matriarchy that once existed in the region.

As the rate of literacy increased and a more fundamental interpretation of Islam spread, she adds, so too did the idea now common across the Middle East that tattoos are “haram” or forbidden under Islamic law.

The photographer says she noticed this change in attitude toward facial tattoos when interacting with a woman named Sassiya and her son in the town of Tamezret, Tunisia.

While Sassiya was delighted to talk about her tattoos, her son was hovering in the background saying she would go to hell for them, explains Al-Arashi.

“This woman was just crying in front of us… you could tell she really loved her tattoos, that they were part of her identity, and she was telling us that she had been praying to God to forgive her for doing these stupid things,” recalls Al-Arashi.

Sassiya told Al-Arashi that she once loved her tattoos, but her children and those around her said she would go to hell for having tattoos.

Unresolved mystery

While a number of photographers and researchers have documented facial tattooing in North Africa and the Middle East, the practice is still largely shrouded in mystery.

A 2012 research project funded by the Pulitzer Center explored facial tattoos among Chaouia women in Algeria and found they were mainly ornamental and used for beautification.

But the study also noted that the meaning and significance of most of the symbols had been lost.

Al-Arashi hopes to continue her project in countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Yemen.

She also says she was determined to photograph the women she encountered in North Africa as she experienced them, instead of undertaking a scientific or anthropological study.

“I really wanted to make them look as beautiful as I thought they were… to really show these people’s personalities instead of just pointing a camera in their face,” she says.

For example, with Sassiya’s photograph, Al-Arashi says she wanted to capture her contested relationship with her tattoos.

“There’s this darkness in her future that was her son, but there is the light that she still loves the tattoos and she is still attached to them.

“I think in that portrait you can see that lightness and darkness there.”

Yumna Al-Arashi’s photo series ‘Face’ will be on show at the Armenia Art Fair in Yerevan, Armenia from 11-14 May 2018.